The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office appears to now have the capability to more quickly release body worn camera footage after a critical event, per the county’s new policy, but says it will not release the recording of a man found dead after an hours-long standoff with deputies.

After watching a redacted version of the video on Thursday, the family of Robert Inosencio requested in writing that it not be released during the ongoing investigation, according to a department news release.

Inosencio, 18, was wanted for two felony warrants when deputies attempted to arrest him. A standoff ensued. One deputy was wounded and Inosencio was found shot dead, according to media reports. It’s still unclear whether a deputy shot him or if the wound was self-inflicted.

The department’s recently-adopted and funded body cam release policy, which applies to incidents when someone suffers serious bodily injury or death at the hands of law enforcement or while in the county’s custody, calls for video to be released within 10 days.

The family was shown the video 16 days after the April 5 standoff with Inosencio, but a department news release stated that the video was “finalized and redacted within the time frame of the body worn camera release policy and in accordance with the law.”

When body worn camera footage should be released, and in what form, has become a hot topic in recent years. Police reform advocates say releasing videos sooner increases policy transparency and accountability. But the recent release of video footage of the shooting death by San Antonio police of Kevin Donel Johnson illustrates the limitations of body camera footage to shed light on an incident, regardless of when it is released.

‘You could see what they wanted you to see’

In that case, Johnson’s family and police reform activists demanded immediate release of the footage. The San Antonio Police Department, which has a 60-day policy, released footage of the shooting after 18 days.

Police said they were attempting to serve two felony warrants on Johnson, 28, who ran after being confronted by three officers. Police said he turned and pointed a gun at him. All three fired, killing Johnson.

But releasing the video quickly did little to quell the family’s concerns that Johnson didn’t have a gun. As it always does, SAPD redacted and edited the audio — often 911 calls — and selected portions of video from body cams and dash cams to combine into a single video narrated by SAPD staff. The clips are then shown again without narration. These videos can be found on the department’s YouTube channel.

Johnson’s sister, Jasmine Johnson, described the video as “tampered with” and said it doesn’t prove he was holding a gun.

“Obviously all the videos were altered,” she said in Milam Park during a protest demanding justice for her brother last month. “You could see what they wanted you to see — you could see what they’re convincing the public what was in his hand.”

Jasmine Johnson, the sister of Kevin Johnson, protests the circumstances involving her brother’s death after he ran from San Antonio Police on March 14. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

An ‘overpromise’?

State law prohibits the public release of body camera footage worn by law enforcement until an investigation is completed, but there is an exemption: if the head of the department determines that releasing a video “serves a law enforcement purpose.”

Both the Sheriff’s Office and SAPD offer to show the family of those injured or killed in an incident before releasing it to the public.

After showing the family footage of Inosencio’s altercation with deputies, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office notified Commissioners Court and “sent a memo to the Bexar County Manager’s Office that our intentions are to not release the body worn camera footage at this time,” the news release states.

It’s unclear why the family made its request or if it is policy to allow families to dictate when video footage will be held or released. The sheriff’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests or emailed follow-up questions.

Commissioners Court approved the 10-day policy last December. Previously, the department processed requests for body camera footage on a case-by-case basis.

Commissioners originally looked at setting a 60-day timeline to match SAPD’s policy; Salazar countered with a 30 day proposal. Then-Commissioner Trish DeBerry, who has since stepped down from her Precinct 3 seat to run for county judge, proposed the 10-day rule that ultimately took effect.

Salazar expressed concern with the timeline. “I hate to overpromise,” he said at the time.

He wasn’t alone. Commissioners Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) and Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) raised concerns that the court was rushing into a decision — but they ultimately voted for the policy, which passed unanimously.

The court later approved funding to hire two staff members to expedite the video release process, aimed at making sure the department is able to comply with the new policy, which was to take effect this month.

Timeline discussions likely to continue

“There was a lot of thought and rationale that went into 60 days,” SAPD Chief William McManus told the San Antonio Report this week. “There’s a lot of things that need to be looked at before we put [body cam video] out … if it’s not accurate, then our credibility is shot. … Sixty days doesn’t mean it’s going to take 60 days to do it.”

But it typically does. Of eight recent critical incident cases, SAPD took took 61 days to post the video on its YouTube account of one man who was shot and killed by police. The remaining seven videos were posted at 60 days or a couple of days earlier.

The policy states that the chief may delay the release beyond 60 days; if he does, his reason is to be posted on the department’s website.

Ananda Tomas, founder of police reform advocacy group ACT 4 SA, said law enforcement agencies should stop narrating body cam videos.

“You have an officer that’s telling the audience what to look for, from their perspective, which is very jaded to begin with and very problematic,” Tomas said.

Chris Benavides, deputy chief with the San Antonio Police Department, narrates the body cam video released from the shooting of Kevin Johnson. Credit: Courtesy / SAPD – YouTube

Law enforcement agencies cannot release footage without redacting license plates or footage of minors, according to state law, but what departments redact beyond that is up to them.

“If we were to put out raw video, with no explanation, no freeze frame, no nothing — people wouldn’t see it,” McManus said. “Some of those videos, they happen so quick and you don’t know what you’re looking at.”

McManus also said families requesting videos not be made public was common.

“Most of those families that we talked to don’t want that video put out,” he said. “They plead for us not to put that out.”

Councilman Jalen McKee Rodriguez (D2), who made police reform a key part of his campaign platform, said he will be pursuing a 10-day policy for SAPD.

“Generally, when we’re looking at SAPD policies, … it feels as though the goal is to give the chief as much discretion as possible,” McKee Rodriguez told the San Antonio Report. “Keeping it 60 days would give him the ability to release things earlier, but again, it’s not about the city and our level of comfort, it should be about police accountability, and accountability to the people that we represent and serve.”

He said he may formally trigger a policy discussion through the council consideration request process, but that may take some time.

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the council committee that would host such a discussion said she’s open to it.

“I think we can always have the conversation,” Havrda said, adding that she would like to know more about how 72-hour and 10-day policies are playing out in other cities or departments.

The Dallas Police Department’s policy is to release video within 72 hours after a critical incident, though sometimes it takes as many as six days. Dallas PD also redacts, edits and narrates its footage.

McManus said he’s open to further discussion on SAPD’s policy, but he wondered aloud whether Dallas PD or other police departments with quick release policies might have “buyer’s remorse.”

“I’m sure the conversation isn’t finished about 60 days,” he said. “But I don’t want to be in a position to be forced to put out a video before it’s appropriate to put it out.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org